Saturday, 18 February 2012

10 things to make your computer safer, more efficient and practical

Luddite, experienced or one who goes where weeping angels fear to tread, on any given day of the week when you turn your computer on, you wonder, is there any way I can do this better, faster, safer. Can I get my personal slave be more cooperative and less of an accident waiting to happen. Well of course there is, but you have to be ever vigilant and ever so likely to spend more time at tech sites than most people are prepared to do. Over the last few months a few things have come along into this blogger's life to make his online life that much more pleasant.  Through dint of spending too much time googling, watching the interesting bits of BBC's Click and having too many computer engineers on my friends list, I have, I think, got the laptop down to the essential bits of kit any rational person should have if they are like me.

I'll get to the specifics in a bit, but it's important you understand the why of it all.

In no particular order, let's start with safe.  Safety is of paramount importance. While you can never have absolute perfection, you can come pretty close to it if you accept that some nasty little troll who really wants to get into your machine, will at some point, at least make your life difficult. In some cases, certain web sites and software, in the name if safety will make your basic browsing experience pure hell.  What you need is a set of software and services that will insure that your data, and financial transactions are safe secure and easy to do, even, EVEN.....EEEEVENNN if you aren't at home or even in another country. If you are careful and don't seek trouble, what trouble that will seek you out will be effectively stopped, sometimes despite  even yourself. Any combination of browser, add ons and antivirus  has to work seamlessly in order to keep us from loosing our cool or purpose when browsing, without ever forgetting that the one thing we want most from the software or service is that it do all the boring stuff quietly and efficiently in the back ground.

 The next thing you need to insure is that your browser isn't going to get all sticky with add ons or be an infected old tart who's been on the game for far too long. Crashes and freezes are annoying, but it's even worse if the browser is like a magnet to viruses. Avoid Internet Explorer.... use your brain, open your eyes, DO NOT DEPEND on what the pre packed stuff the computer seems to insist you use. Norton hasn't been THE BEST in a decade. The deadly combination of bad browser and lazy anti virus means you'll be behind the eight ball before you type in  Women of Star Trek. And on the subject of search engines, Google, as good as it used to be, has committed the crime of being so commerce driven, that any really useful results to "History of Doctor Who" are hidden away on page 3, behind, anything they can flog, Doctors who do surgery and assorted pills and creams. If that's not enough, Google now has joined it's privacy policy up to insure that they give you the best browsing experience by mining your e-mail, google searches and you tube history, all in aid of getting you to the stuff you want to buy faster. What? you didn't want to buy anything, you just wanted  some info? Too bad, because they are now assuming your information and activities belong to them and they could sell them on in some form or other.  I'd love to suggest a great, perfect search engine, but both Yahoo and Bing have their drawbacks and their good points, but if you wish to avoid the triple whamy of letting Google know your every move, you need to pick one of those two OR  Clear and disable your Google search history.

Lastly, your computer is also your telly, your radio and your telephone, if you aren't streaming, talking, listening and watching on the laptop, you are missing the best bit. 

So how do you avoid getting wrong in this minefield of competing risks and drains on your credulity? What is is the magic bullet that works for me?

Beginning with the browser most likely to satisfy me, Mozilla Firefox ( current version) will almost always be better than Chrome, if like me you enjoy fiddling with your settings and being master of your domain ( apologies to Seinfeld).  Firefox allows you to tailor your browsing with a number of add ons that insure your safety and ease  of use. The best are Adblock plus, it does what it says on the tin. Stopping most adds on ITV, 4oD, and forums and streaming sites that would normally get your browser to crawl to a stand still.  While Adblock can seem a bit of a pain in the ass sometimes, remember when that streaming site insists you disable Adblock, it's most likely just angry you've stopped it's cookies and viruses from entering your machine. If it seems to good to be true, if you just let the ads on, it is. Better Privacy does for you what most antivirus will do only in the paid version, and that's stop the cookies that track you and your locations. If like me, you can write in a few languages, Firefox has a number of dictionaries you can  install as well. Lastly and most  cool, Firefox has a wide variety of skins to dress your browser in. One is in Tardis blue with stars and the other is all Newcastle United.  You just try that in IE or Chrome. Now if you aren't that bothered with a lot of useful bits you can control with ease, then Chrome, aka Firefox light, is the browser for you. Still does a lot, still better than IE, but beware, the best add ons are written for the open source Firefox and will always be fixed long before Chrome notices there was ever anything wrong.

Give us your password
Antivirus software is the most important choice you'll ever make with your computer. The package is your personal security guard checking to see if some yobo looking to steal your passwords and overdraft is lurking in your junk mail and dodgier sites. While a good number of free antivirus programmes exist, they are not nearly as good as the one you pay for, and even then, you need to be careful. Recently, BBC's Click ( see Man in the Browser story )wrote a custom made Zeus file designed to trick you into giving up all manner of confidential banking information. Only three antivirus packs detected the new, previously unflagged virus, Bullguard, Kaspersky and another who's name now escapes me. That's three out of over 20 major choices, leaving old Norton and it's mates floundering in the gutter, mugged, bleeding and penniless. I however went with Kaspersky for a few reasons. 1- It's main office is just down the street where the biggest and the baddest hackers on Earth work. Surely the best choice. 2- Importantly, unlike Bullguard, Kaspersky has a world wide online presence that provides a quality assurance customer service second to none. 3 Lastly, the price was hard to beat. Kaspersky Internet Security 2012, for the price, did what all the other premium versions did, plus more, and for less. The more you buy online, the more you explore for Classic Doctor Who online, the more you will need to protect your money and your pass words. Bottom line, what ever you do, Kaspersky is probably the best at catching the new viruses, worms or malware the baddies have cooked up long before anybody else will.

Now here comes the cool stuff.....

VPN ( virtual private network) v Proxy:  That's easy, but let's see why. Proxy does what VPN does, it allows you to be in another country, even if you're in a different country. But unlike the VPN, Proxy services tend to be used by more than just revolutionaries, people just trying to watch a bit of BBC iPlayer away from home, or some CBS show they missed that month  while away on business. Proxy is dangerous, if only because it's a known tool used by people who are trying to counter security measures in illegal commercial transactions. So what! you say, you just wanted to catch up on Corrie or Match of the Day? Oh and if a load of people are all on the same server at the same time, you won't be getting anywhere near the bandwidth they promised you. No big deal? try and access your paypal account or do a bank transaction, it won't work, every bell and whistle and alarm will go off, and rightly so, because criminals are doing the same as you on IP addresses that change as often as babies change nappies. Using a VPN will insure a near uniform access, secure private and reliable connection that isn't being shared by a 1000 other people, including some pretty dodgy people up to no good. This also means you can access your accounts without having to worry. In proxy, doing so  resets all your cookies, and in the case of paypal, blocks your access till you reset your password. There is one other pretty compelling reason to go VPN, unlike proxy settings that are fiddly even for most nerds and need setting up on every browser and every application you use, VPN installs once, and connects to your server efficiently and quickly. My choice is VPNUK. A company that has not let us down yet. A brilliant service group that will with live help, get you set up, and if you need assistance later, sort you out promptly.  VPNUK charges about the same as others for a month, but affiliated with a multiplicity of online payment systems, is dead easy to get onto at £5.99. With VPNUK you bypass the hassle of international banking and you can still catch up with telly from home, and should anything happen, the live help is there most of the day.

What about BBC podcasts? I used to miss my favourite programmes or just get to listen just the once, but now with the deceptively easy Radio Downloader, I can select my favourite shows, leave it running and presto, I have the broadcast for as long as I want it. Yes you're right, just how many times can you listen to Jilted John or Oh Bondage up yours?  Well ... as often as I can some days, but for most people it's a wonderful way to record a unique event off the full spectrum of BBC radio. I'm particularly proud of the time I got a request read on the air, and now I can hear it again and again. Ok that's sad, but I also have the time Nicola Bryant was interviewed, that time him off the Rezillos talked about the formative years of the band or when The Happy Cats played live.

Are you on Facebook all the time, Facebook doing your head in with all the sidebars and tickers and other wee multi legged beasties they unleash on us?  feedfilter from Firefox  lets you customize just how much of the content you want to hide. Oh of course you can do that now without it, but only because Feedfilter came first, and it's still working beyond the call of duty hiding ads and other elements Mark Zuckerberg seems to think I need.

Now not withstanding the bollocking I gave Google before, G-mail has unleashed a cool bit of kit  for the entire year of 2012.... If you live in North America ( but not Mexico) you can ring people for free from G mail.  It doesn't matter if it's a mobile number or a land line, it's free. Before they wake up and realize what they've done, use it. Free phone calls anywhere in Canada or the United states from within Canada or the United States, assuming you have the people to talk to,  Get in !  Pity they didn't do it for the EU and GB, but hey, if you can use, you'd be a daft cnut not to.

I know most of my readers are Doctor Who fans, what with the incredible shrinking streaming universe, we need to appreciate the online services we have. Ideally you should buy the DVD of any Doctor Who ep, but what if you don't have access, what if the BBC still haven't released the tape to DVD, what if your local video shop is not Who friendly?  This web site is the best bar none collection of links to Doctor Who online.  It's nowhere near as good as owning the stories, but it's better than nothing and sometimes , nothing is all we have.  Crossing the WHOniverse is one stop for every era. You'll have to navigate a few places that  seem to think there were ever only 6 series, silly people, but if it's online, you'll find it here.

What about that collection of region one DVDs, maybe your mate from England gifted you an entire collection of BBC DVDs, or worse that collection of lush Jackie Chan stuff that just won't play on your machine.  And if you've changed your region more then the 6 times allowed, it stuck on whatever you were last watching.  VLC Media player comes to the rescue, after much searching and trying , it's the only one that works for sure without spending money and as good as any as the ones that cost. Install it, it's safe, it's easy and uncomplicated. I'd pay, but frankly the firms out there offering the software demand far too much information and will mostly try to get you to buy a load of stuff you don't need along with some tricky viruses.

Oh and feotus boy, why are you still paying to talk to people long distance????? Any of these are great, MSN, SKYPE, and now the GMail phone for North America. All allow you to talk for free on your comp, with or without video. You giant mentalist, paying long distance is insane if you can do it for free on this many platforms. All that texting, rofling ,  and chatting is killing the art of conversation and the ability of an entire generation to express themselves with words out loud or to converse AND pay attention to what the other person is saying. While I have your attention, don't use the ISP e-mail address they gave you, don't ever get tied down to your provider for e-mail services. Choose one , any one, I have always liked GMail, not least for it's ease of use and it's massive capacity for storage. If you ever leave your provider, you don't have to migrate yet again to another new e-mail address. Sounds logical doesn't it, but far too many are still too afraid to try any of the secure, free and reliable web based e-mails out there.

Clouds...... clouds are stupid, they are cumbersome and accomplish little, get a detachable data storage unit, a stick, a big external drive, it's faster and more secure.

For the nerds and anoraks who love canny open source stuff that works, Filzip for compressing files, CCleaner for cookies and other essential bits of cleaning and for the ones too skint to pay for Windows office Suite.. Open office is free to use and does the exact same thing.

Follow my advice and you'll be happy, safe and mostly trouble free. You could do this the hard way and try all sort of other things, but I hope you'll save yourself the palaver.

Last bit of advice if you're running a business, if you don't have an online presence, get one, if you have one but haven't optimized your site, do it, if you're thinking of doing it, don't let your 14 year old nephew  do it. Trust a professional and pay the price, Like all things on the net that require the slightest bit of talent, people want it for free. Be it writing, music or computer services.

I would have loved to do a review of the best paypal type services, but that will be for another time. I hope this has helped. Surf safe, surf happy and be aware that sometimes you need to pay to get something in return.

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